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Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I join other Members in praising the dedication of the staff of the Child Support Agency. I agree with the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who is no longer present, that it takes some dedication to work day after day for an organisation that faces such problems. A late friend of mine who was a management consultant for the agency said as long ago as the 1990s that it had failed the dinner-party test: its staff were not prepared to admit that they worked for it when they met people for the first time over dinner. The problems seem to have continued and multiplied since then. I shall cite two constituency cases, which demonstrate that the scale of evasion is not the only cause of those problems. Systematic inefficiencies, poor systems and the poor quality of decision making in the agency cannot be overlooked.

A constituent of mine first made a claim on 15 October 2004. Rather unusually—because, as she rather charmingly said, she had heard that the CSA was not a very efficient organisation—she kept a log of what followed. After 11 months, 22 telephone calls and two faxes, her log contained a litany of computer problems, calls, complaints and information that had not been acted on, promised updates that had not been given, and failure to act on payment defaults on which she had been told that action had been taken. No effective work was done on her case for month after month and, inexplicably, the whole case was transferred from Dudley to Plymouth halfway through. It all culminated on 6 September 2005 with a call from a CSA caseworker, who offered to help her with her new claim—11 months after the original claim had been submitted. As any manager knows, such inefficiency increases not just the queue but the burden. It complicates the position and makes it worse.

In the second case, a couple separated and the child stayed with the woman. She made a claim through the CSA and a payment assessment was made. The amount was not paid by her ex-partner, who was self-employed. The extent of the arrears is a matter of dispute between her and the agency, but there certainly were arrears. At that stage, the child moved house from one parent to the other. The woman's self-employed ex-partner then made a claim against her for payment. Because she was a salaried public employee, she automatically had to pay. She was therefore paying twice—she was paying for the period during which the child had stayed with her and also for the period during which the child was staying with her ex-partner. When we asked whether the arrears could be offset against the payments, we were inexplicably told that they could not. Apparently, it was beyond the competence of the agency even to entertain the idea.

I feel that that case constitutes an argument for some separation, or a degree of escape, from absolute dependence on the receipt of payments from one partner
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before payments are made to the other. Surely the reputation, at least, of the Inland Revenue might give people pause before they evaded payments in such a systematic way. While certain schemes may have caused problems, that reputation, and the Revenue's general efficiency, suggest that it should be given responsibility.

Would tagging have helped in either case? Of course not. The CSA is an organisation that has been in crisis for many years. The platform on which the Minister wanted to build is broken. The agency is not fit for its purpose and it is time to return to the drawing board, preferably with cross-party support if it can be mustered. I see no ideological divide; I simply see a very serious problem, the victims of which are children and families in my constituency and across the country. That problem has been allowed to drag on for far too long.

6.23 pm

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) for initiating the debate, and to the many Members who have made such thoughtful contributions to it. I think that the welfare of the child is at the heart of all our concerns. Notwithstanding what was said by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), many thousands of young people are still not receiving the support that they so richly deserve. Like many other Members, I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government propose to restore confidence in a process that—as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) rightly said—is half broken.

The fundamental issue, as was eloquently pointed out by the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir), is the lack of public confidence in the CSA. That was brought home to me forcefully during the summer recess when a friend told me about his two daughters, both divorced and both with children, neither of whom was bothering to chase up support from the children's fathers through the CSA. They had been so put off by the experiences of friends that they decided to go on bringing up their children on their own.

The Minister made much of the need for more enforcement. How does he propose to make that work? I am currently dealing with the case of a grandfather who is bringing up three children on his old age pension because their mother has died. A court order was issued last March, and in November the police were still refusing to enforce it and take the father to court. Last week, I received a letter from the police saying that as the father had had an accident and been taken to hospital, they would not pursue the case further. That is unacceptable. If we are to have enforcement, we must have enforcement all along the line. All the agencies involved must ensure that those who refuse to pay are brought to book.

In his answer to the question that he was asked in November, the Prime Minister said that he felt that the CSA was trying to do too much—that it was taking on too much. What is it being asked to do? It must carry out assessments; then there must be the collection; then there must be enforcement in the cases of the all too many fathers who will not pay up readily.

Mine is the only party that has today suggested ways in which the system could be reformed. If the Minister will not consider wholesale transfer of responsibility to
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the Inland Revenue, will he accept the view of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead that the Revenue could be used effectively to enforce collection? Nothing focuses the mind more strongly than an effect on the pay packet. The root of the problem is the lack of clear enforcement procedures, which enables so many people not to own up to what they earn and not to make regular payments. Whatever may be said about tax credits, the Inland Revenue is an excellent collection agency. A system to enforce some form of collection—albeit rather crude—would bring people to book.

Miss Begg : Much has been made of enforcement, but it has all been about enforcement by the CSA to ensure that the non-resident parent pays. There is a different enforcement issue for, in particular, fathers' groups who have been paying child maintenance. They are concerned about enforcement of the court order that allows them access. That is why we often see very angry fathers who feel that one side of the system—ironically, the CSA—is being enforced sufficiently, but the court orders are not. What is the Liberal Democrat solution to that?

Paul Rowen: In an intervention earlier, I pointed out that there was a role for the courts as well as for the Revenue. Many cases are ongoing, whether they involve access or other matters. I would not advocate returning to the old system, but why cannot the courts play a greater role in ensuring that issues concerning the child are dealt with concurrently, rather than separately and through various agencies?

This has been an excellent debate and I hope that, in her concluding remarks, the Minister will agree to release the chief executive's report before the Government's proposals are published, so that Members can read the report and then perhaps respond more positively to the Government's proposals. I look forward to their finally restoring public confidence in a failing organisation.

6.30 pm

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to contribute briefly to this debate. I speak in support of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), and of the motion before the House.   I know that I am not the only Member whose   constituency mailbag amply demonstrates the somewhat chaotic nature of the Child Support Agency in its current form. Fathers and mothers approach me   daily in large numbers with tales—the vast majority   of which are subsequently proved to be correct—of incompetence, misunderstanding, contempt and despair.

I do not suggest for one minute that CSA staff are not dealing with sensitive and difficult issues as best they can, or that the organisation does not have a tough job on its hands. However, far from achieving positive outcomes in difficult circumstances, the CSA has in my view all too often contributed to a further breakdown in relationships that were already broken. The end result is that children are missing out on the financial support that they deserve, and their chances of enjoying a positive relationship with both parents are being jeopardised. In my experience, it is not just a question of the wastefulness of the system, which was highlighted
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in   recent months, and the incompetence that led to thousands of fathers being wrongly named as absent parents; the CSA also has a seriously bad image problem. It is structurally unsound, and the tragedy is that it has lost the confidence of so many of those whom it is designed to help.

Every week, I am presented with correspondence from the CSA, written in language that is highly unlikely to elicit co-operation from parents. Many parents face a CSA that acts as judge, jury and executioner in its dealings with them. In many cases, such correspondence is directed to parents who are more than willing to co-operate. Is it any wonder that so many children are not getting their fair share of maintenance, when the system treats parents in this way?

It is clear that the structural complexities of the CSA in its current form have led to administrative difficulties. We are all familiar with the backlog in processing claims, and with the headline figure on how much it costs to collect maintenance, compared with the amount that children actually get. Those complexities have filtered through in the CSA's dealings with families. This unholy alliance of complexity and hostility is costing thousands, if not millions, of children every day. Without a modicum of confidence in the system, the CSA simply cannot operate.

The strategic review of the CSA has to be one of the most overdue reviews in any part of government. I urge Ministers to take into consideration the reasoned and reasonable proposals that my colleagues have outlined this afternoon. Nobody wants a return to the old system, but we do need to move forward with a new one.

6.33 pm

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